The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; On Human Nature eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 96 pages of information about The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; On Human Nature.

[Footnote 1:  Epistles, 37.]

ETHICAL REFLECTIONS.

The philosophers of the ancient world united in a single conception a great many things that had no connection with one another.  Of this every dialogue of Plato’s furnishes abundant examples.  The greatest and worst confusion of this kind is that between ethics and politics.  The State and the Kingdom of God, or the Moral Law, are so entirely different in their character that the former is a parody of the latter, a bitter mockery at the absence of it.  Compared with the Moral Law the State is a crutch instead of a limb, an automaton instead of a man.

* * * * *

The principle of honour stands in close connection with human freedom.  It is, as it were, an abuse of that freedom.  Instead of using his freedom to fulfil the moral law, a man employs his power of voluntarily undergoing any feeling of pain, of overcoming any momentary impression, in order that he may assert his self-will, whatever be the object to which he directs it.  As he thereby shows that, unlike the lower animals, he has thoughts which go beyond the welfare of his body and whatever makes for that welfare, it has come about that the principle of honour is often confused with virtue.  They are regarded as if they were twins.  But wrongly; for although the principle of honour is something which distinguishes man from the lower animals, it is not, in itself, anything that raises him above them.  Taken as an end and aim, it is as dark a delusion as any other aim that springs from self.  Used as a means, or casually, it may be productive of good; but even that is good which is vain and frivolous.  It is the misuse of freedom, the employment of it as a weapon for overcoming the world of feeling, that makes man so infinitely more terrible than the lower animals; for they do only what momentary instinct bids them; while man acts by ideas, and his ideas may entail universal ruin before they are satisfied.

There is another circumstance which helps to promote the notion that honour and virtue are connected.  A man who can do what he wants to do shows that he can also do it if what he wants to do is a virtuous act.  But that those of our actions which we are ourselves obliged to regard with contempt are also regarded with contempt by other people serves more than anything that I have here mentioned to establish the connection.  Thus it often happens that a man who is not afraid of the one kind of contempt is unwilling to undergo the other.  But when we are called upon to choose between our own approval and the world’s censure, as may occur in complicated and mistaken circumstances, what becomes of the principle of honour then?

Two characteristic examples of the principle of honour are to be found in Shakespeare’s Henry VI., Part II., Act IV., Sc. 1.  A pirate is anxious to murder his captive instead of accepting, like others, a ransom for him; because in taking his captive he lost an eye, and his own honour and that of his forefathers would in his opinion be stained, if he were to allow his revenge to be bought off as though he were a mere trader.  The prisoner, on the other hand, who is the Duke of Suffolk, prefers to have his head grace a pole than to uncover it to such a low fellow as a pirate, by approaching him to ask for mercy.

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The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; On Human Nature from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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